1. The Sea as Barrier, the Sea as Highway

A protected little sea like the Strait of Georgia doesn’t present the same challenges to human movement as the vast expanses of an ocean. Yet whether any body of water is a barrier or an opportunity for human travel has much to do with the skills, knowledge and technology of those who navigate it. For the Indigenous people who lived along the Strait’s many hundreds of kilometres of coastline for millenniums before 1849, the sea presented a ready route of travel, a nearly endless supply of food and a means of purification, but it also brought life-threatening storms and tidal rapids. By the early nineteenth century, Indigenous people had adapted to life by the sea in myriad ways and were moving themselves and their goods around it with ease in canoes wrought from giant cedars.

BC Ferries vessel approaching the busy terminal at Horseshoe Bay. By the final decades of the twentieth century, such large car ferries had become essential for overcoming the marine barrier. Murray Foubister/Flickr photo

The arrival of seafarers from distant places initiated a period in which relations between the inland sea and human movement would begin to change frequently. Although the Strait always acted as both a barrier and a highway, rapidly shifting technologies redefined the role of the sea and people’s narratives about it.

The late-eighteenth-century ocean voyages of British navigators James Cook and George Vancouver helped transform the outside world’s understanding of the northeastern shore of the Pacific Ocean and speeded the region’s integration into trans-Pacific and global trading networks. The Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), a British fur-trading company with a history dating back to 1670, began moving west into the region during the first half of the nineteenth century when it incorporated the Strait of Georgia into its broader “Columbia” region. The sea links with Britain, Hawaii and California established by the HBC would underpin the export-based economy that emerged on the inland sea later in the century. In the process, the HBC initiated now familiar patterns of movement among its establishments on the Lower Fraser River and in Victoria and Nanaimo. It moved goods and people, overcoming some of the Strait’s navigational challenges with the inland sea’s first steam-powered vessels.

Colonisation by a seafaring people, 1849–1880s

British colonisers of the land around the Strait who came after the HBC were confident in their ability to seize opportunities the global seas offered to those with the knowledge and courage to master them. The British were enamoured with the sea, not just as a highway to success but as a key determinant of their national character. In the 1870s, novelist Robert Louis Stevenson suggested Britons felt possessive towards the sea, which symbolised their nation even more than the imperial lion. The sea, he said, was their bulwark, “the scene of…[our] greatest triumphs and dangers, and…[we] claim it as our own.”1 A decade later, an article on the “origins of the English” described the British as “folk of the sea, to whom the sea is a true home.”2 Similarly, a turn-of-the-century children’s history extolled the British boy’s “racial love for the sea” and his “especial birthright to the blue waters.”3

The British love affair with the sea was transcendent but also practical. Long before John Masefield became Britain’s poet laureate, his poem “Sea Fever” exclaimed he had to “go down to the sea again” to respond to a “wild and clear call [that]…could not be denied.” This sea, woven into their character, they believed, stood for much that was admirable in that character: beauty, power, conquest, redemption, questing, life, healing and soothing. The British also recognised the practical value of this love match. Young Britons learned that their global dominance of commerce resulted from British command of the seas. These were people who could believe destiny had prepared them to control a small sea on the far side of the world. Britain was one of the few imperial powers that—like Spain and the United States—could exercise real power on such a distant sea. The colonies of Vancouver Island and later British Columbia were among the most remote places of mid-nineteenth century Europeans’ “known world.”

Virtually all colonists at mid-century came to the Strait by sea, and most ocean travel to the Strait would continue to be in sailing ships until the end of the nineteenth century. Getting there was considerably more challenging than sailing within it. Sea travel times between the east and west coasts of the US had already fallen considerably by the early 1850s, thanks to rapid improvements in maritime services stimulated by the gold rush in California. However, the usual trip from London to Victoria—around Cape Horn and usually via the Hawaiian Islands to take advantage of winds and trade opportunities—meant five or six months in a closely confined space, if all went well. The British Colonial Office considered the option of transporting emigrants via the Isthmus of Panama instead of around Cape Horn to reduce the length of the journey. It eventually decided it wouldn’t be worth the risks associated with Panama’s steamy climate and its sometimes troublesome residents.

William Lomas, who would later become an Indian agent in the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island, left behind an account of his passage from Liverpool via Cape Horn in 1862. If Lomas felt any “racial love of the sea” at the outset of his voyage, it was likely much diminished by the time he reached Victoria. He was prosperous enough to travel in relative comfort, but it was still a daunting voyage:


July 11: The feelings of an emigrant on leaving the shores of his native land must be felt to be understood…dear ones whom you have seen, perhaps for the last time, will flash across your mind and do not tend to make the day a happy one.


The endless days of seasickness:


July 13: You can have no idea of feeling sick for three or four days together without the slightest relief.

July 15: So sick.


Months of sharing close and uncomfortable quarters with unpleasant travelling companions:


July 22: [T]he most disgraceful fellows I have ever been amongst. Most…cannot speak ten words without two or three oaths, and they are all a drunken lot…cabin is very close.


Bad food and services:


July 26: [T]he mustard and pepper have been sent unground and no mill to grind with. The cooks are disgusting fellows, very dirty, and scarcely ever sober since we started. The doctor…always drinking.


Uneasiness about the new country:


August 20: Saw some Columbian [i.e., British Columbian] papers from April which gave very black accounts of the hardships of persons arriving without at least £100. Many of our passengers are wishing themselves back in England, but…by God’s help, I must succeed.


Then, after a month and a half at sea, except for the terrifying prospect of sailing through the mountainous waves, snowstorms and icebergs of Cape Horn that still lay ahead, things began to look up:


August 25: If I were starting again I could pay my passage by taking out articles to sell on board…onions sell at 3d each…2/ [2 shillings] is refused for cheese per lb. Wilson and I have bought two hams, nearly 50 lbs weight. We can sell for 1/6 [1 shilling, 6 pence] but are waiting until it is 2/.


October 28: Sold my champagne at 50% profit.


Otherwise, conditions did not improve as they approached Victoria:


November 4: Several rats are found, dead, in the water casks. This adds considerably to the flavour. The biscuits, too, are all alive and…the maggots are of a very large breed.


His boat, the Silistria, didn’t stop at Honolulu and therefore made Victoria after only 128 days at sea, “the shortest passage of any sailing vessel that has been here yet.”4

As ocean-going steam vessels gradually replaced sailing ships and transcontinental railways reached the Pacific in California, the average time it took to get to the Strait from Britain declined steadily. A dozen years after Lomas’s journey, a future trader and politician on the Strait named Michael Manson made his trip out in barely thirty days. He had crossed the Atlantic by steamship to New York, travelled by train to San Francisco and then headed north by coastal steamer to Victoria.

Steam was also gradually replacing sail on the Strait itself, yet well into the twentieth century sailboats were still widely used for moving people and goods. Sailing vessels equipped with compass, lead, sextant and chronometer were not well adapted to navigating the inland sea. Although the Strait was calm much of the time, winter winds could be fierce and currents poured in and out, endlessly changing among the countless islands and reefs. The long, narrow fjords of the northeast shore were especially challenging for navigators, and sweeping the sea’s north and south entrances were tides that could run like a mountain river in spring.

The Strait could be dangerous for navigators of any vessel in the 1850s and ’60s, but particularly for gold miners eager to reach the Fraser River gold fields. Determined to get from Victoria to the river mouth, they would cross the sea in any craft they could find. A colonial official at the time reported that many miners perished on “hazardous voyages” through a “maze of archipelagos” then across a “stormy and dangerous gulf” that was challenging even for boats far larger and sounder than theirs.5 And judging from the many reports of wrecks and salvage operations published in the Colonist, the following decades—the 1860s and ’70s—were good years to be a salvager on the Strait. After the gold rush abated, coal ships in and out of Nanaimo figured in many navigational mishaps. So did vessels going through Plumper Pass (now Active Pass) and Seymour Narrows.

Homeric accounts of trips around the inland sea in those years describe unpredictable adventures in the face of currents, wind, fog and uncharted reefs and rocks. Writer Frederick Marsh recounted the story of a very old man from North Pender Island sailing to Nanaimo for the first time in the 1870s. Travelling through calms, fogs and rapids, he met Indigenous people boiling dogfish oil on the beach and Portuguese Joe Silvey and his First Nations family in their beach home. He spent four days waiting out a fog before finally completing the 80-kilometre journey. In 1881, the Colonist newspaper described a similar odyssey by vacationers sailing for days from Saanich to Cortes Island through a gauntlet of riptides and gales.6

Ottawa assumed responsibility for marine space after BC’s entry into Confederation in 1871 and soon began to address the Strait’s navigational challenges. The Department of Marine and Fisheries’ (DMF) local agent in this “distant colony” was named “Inspector of Lights” and “Inspector of Steamboats,” as lighthouses (see photograph here) and other navigational aids were early federal priorities on the Strait. Having inherited a single lightship at the mouth of the Fraser from the colonial authority, the federal government built a lighthouse at the entrance to Burrard Inlet in 1875 and one on Nanaimo’s Entrance Island in 1877. Buoys were installed or upgraded on Burrard Inlet, English Bay, Gabriola Reef and Trincomali Channel.

An informal and poorly organised pilot service also helped tame the Strait’s hazards, though its pilots were often drunk and it didn’t appear to be a popular job. An 1869 regulation stipulated: “Pilots taken to sea on any vessel against their will shall be entitled to claim from the master or owner of such vessel the sum of five dollars per diem until the date of their arrival at the Port of Victoria.”7 After an 1873 shipwreck on Plumper Pass, Ottawa began to organise a more formal system.

The federal government was also prepared to invest in BC’s ports, which would clearly become important assets once the railway reached the coast and would make the Strait a vital part of the chain linking the new dominion’s resource industries with Asian markets. Although Burrard Inlet was recognised early on as one of the best locations for the rail terminal, it had no sizable non-Indigenous settlements until the 1860s. To facilitate navigation, the British Admiralty published marine charts using the hydrographic survey carried out by Captain George Richards between 1860 and 1862, and soon sawmills on Burrard Inlet were exporting lumber across the Pacific. From the mid-1860s to the late 1870s, more than forty ocean-going ships loaded lumber on the inlet each year.

Although Burrard Inlet’s good entrance and protected anchorage were generally recognised, Victoria’s newspapers were given to enumerating the Mainland port’s drawbacks. Journalists in the capital reported that the approach to Burrard Inlet suffered from the treacherous weather of the Strait and that Plumper Pass was often dangerous. The inlet’s First and Second Narrows, they noted with disapproval, were barely 270 metres wide and subject to tides running over 16 kilometres per hour in full flood. Furthermore, they warned, American guns placed on the San Juan Islands could easily close the Strait to navigation entirely. Given that Victoria had a keen interest in touting its own local Esquimalt harbour, “the best port on the Pacific,” such denunciations were hardly surprising.

The Georgina Point Lighthouse on Mayne Island around 1880. Ottawa’s growing network of lights and buoys helped ships navigate the Strait’s dangerous currents, reefs and rocks. Image A-04588 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives.

While the Colonist stoked fears of losing ships on the Strait, two tiny HBC steamers, the Beaver (see photograph here) and the Otter, were serving as towboats there by the late 1850s. These boats were gluttons for wood but independent of capricious winds. They had proven their worth to HBC trading posts in Victoria and Langley and had shipped salt fish, lumber and coal to San Francisco. Now, as towboats, they helped guide ocean-going sailboats safely through tricky inland waters; a growing fleet of such tugs was soon towing these vessels through the Strait’s many narrows.

The number of steam vessels on the Strait grew through the 1860s and early 1870s. Although early steamers could be as unreliable as the pilots and few stayed in business long, these boats became more regular and more predictable over time. They also became larger. Soon coastal steamships carrying ever more passengers and freight rendered the inland sea more familiar to settlers and began to transform life in the growing shoreline communities. Settlers could receive goods and even mail, and could ship what they produced to the world.

As the Strait became a highway for people and goods coming to the Pacific coast and for goods flowing from North America to markets abroad, it also posed a growing barrier to Victoria’s aspirations of being the dominant port in BC. When the colonies of Vancouver Island and British Columbia came together in 1866, the Colonist heralded the “bringing together of people from the two sides of the Gulf of Georgia.”8 Early reports had spoken glowingly of the abundance of good harbours around the South Coast; however, it became clear there were two principal contenders: Victoria–Esquimalt and Burrard Inlet. Competition between them intensified as merchants and speculators on both sides of the Strait vied for dominance. In the end, however, the outcome was decided by the location of the terminus for the “all-Canadian” transcontinental railway.

The age of rail was well under way elsewhere, and the railway’s relatively late arrival on the inland sea was the object of much anticipation and speculation. Victoria’s merchants, led by Amor de Cosmos and what historian Martin Robin called Victoria’s “shopocracy,”9 were determined that a transcontinental railroad should extend to the southern tip of Vancouver Island and that their city should be its terminus. They even suggested that BC’s entry into Confederation ought to be made contingent on Victoria being named the terminus. Seldom missing an opportunity to stress the dangers facing ships bound for Burrard Inlet, Victoria’s boosters declared that their city was “much closer to Europe and Asia” (about 120 kilometres closer by sea) and their proposed Bute Inlet route (see Figure 2) would be much better than the treacherous Fraser Canyon leading to Burrard Inlet.

After decades helping others navigate the Strait’s hazards, the SS Beaver fell victim to them. An inebriated crew wrecked her on Prospect Point in 1888, the same year a lighthouse was erected nearby. Image A-00014 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives.

Victoria’s lobbyists did not seriously consider the challenge of laying rail along the steep shore of Bute Inlet, then across furious tidal rapids, but they aimed to demonstrate that the Strait represented no insurmountable barrier to a transcontinental railway. To prove that the northern Strait could be easily spanned, proponents of the Victoria terminus used charts prepared by George Vancouver in the 1790s. And like their “best port on the Pacific” arguments in support of the harbour at Esquimalt, they proclaimed that a railway on Bute Inlet would avoid the impassable Fraser Canyon and Burrard Inlet’s treacherous currents. The Colonist also maintained: “To suppose that the time will never come again that Great Britain will be at war with the United States is to believe that the Millennium is close at hand. Twice during the past fifteen years has a war been imminent.”10 The British navy, they claimed, could readily secure the Bute Inlet route from American aggression, which would be impossible for a railroad following the Lower Fraser. After short hops onto and off of what was then still known as Valdes Island, they said, the railway could follow the flat, sheltered coast of Vancouver Island to Victoria. This route had the added advantage of easing access to Vancouver Island’s rich natural resources.

Figure 2. Those who believed the transcontinental railway’s terminus should be Victoria favoured the Bute Inlet route from the interior over the Fraser Canyon-to-Burrard Inlet one.

Fear of losing the Strait’s bounty to American expansionism was not unfounded, in part because railway building was more advanced south of the border. By the 1870s, most settlers on the Strait had reached the West Coast on American railways. Had there been hostilities, American forces travelling by rail would have been able to move more easily than Canadians or British soldiers, who would have been denied travel on American rails. Historian Richard White noted in the book Railroaded that an American engineer conducting a preliminary survey for the Northern Pacific Railway sought information about the Bute Inlet route, in case Vancouver Island became part of the United States.

With the arrival of the transcontinental railway in 1886, the quiet backwater known as Gastown, seen here in 1884, became Vancouver. Image A-01009 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives.

Ultimately, Victoria’s railway proposal suffered because of gaps in George Vancouver’s mapping. He had failed to mark the narrow channels that separate Quadra, Read, Maurelle and Sonora Islands, labelling these four islands “Valdes Island” on his map. Considering the fierce tidal rapids running through some of these passages, one can understand why his crews neglected to investigate them. When more detailed surveys in the 1860s and ’70s revealed the complexity of the Strait’s northern perimeter, however, the Bute Inlet route looked less appealing.

Backers in Victoria were devastated when the Burrard Inlet terminus (see photograph here and Figure 2) was chosen in 1877. For the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), the challenges of the Fraser Canyon looked less daunting than the Strait’s marine barrier. In fact, the transcontinental railway never reached Victoria, and Victoria has never dominated the economy of the Strait as Vancouver has. Victoria had prevailed over New Westminster to become the capital of the new colony when Vancouver Island and British Columbia were joined in 1866. And it had won the first round of competition between ports, being chosen over Burrard Inlet, Nanaimo and Alberni as the site for the British navy’s main base on the northeast Pacific. In hindsight, these earlier victories must have bolstered Victoria’s confidence to unreasonable heights, because its bid for the railway terminus does not seem plausible—140 years later, the Strait still has not been bridged. But for Victoria’s settler elite in the 1870s, Burrard Inlet’s bid for the railhead was akin to Surrey proposing today to become the urban core of the Lower Mainland. Both sides understood that in the age of rail, the terminus city would dominate the west coast of Canada. The success of Burrard Inlet’s bid was never really in serious doubt, and its success helped ensure a rapidly growing settler economy focused on the Strait.

During these first decades of colonisation, the region was a maritime community similar, for example, to one that had grown up around Chesapeake Bay on the east coast of North America many years earlier. Both were places where most people travelled by water, often paddling or rowing, because roads were mostly bad or nonexistent. What roads there were, such as between Burrard Inlet and New Westminster, were rough trails and stayed that way for decades. The Vancouver Island shore offered more manageable terrain, but even the Nanaimo to Comox road was a never-ending project in those years, often close to completion but never quite finished. The Nanaimo to Victoria road was similar, and it was eclipsed by the Esquimalt & Nanaimo (E&N) Railway after 1885. As long as most movement between settlements was via the marine highway, places on islands and peninsulas were not at a disadvantage. The Strait’s infant settlements strove to open local post offices where passing steamers could deliver mail. Telegraph services and passenger ferries on Burrard Inlet also began in this period.

Both as a practical highway and a dangerous barrier, the Strait was a pervasive presence in settlers’ lives. While sailing ships and steamers carried the heavy loads, some settlers bought dugout canoes and some added outriggers to make them more stable. Others hired Indigenous people to paddle for them. Mike Manson, later a prominent trader and politician on the northern Strait, hired an Indigenous canoe and crew to take him and his new bride from Nanaimo to Victoria in 1878. But most settlers, especially those living on the islands in the Strait, preferred rowboats. A few settlers lost their lives while rowing on the Strait each year, from bad luck, ignorance, too much drink or other miscalculations. But they rowed miles to hunt and fish, fetch groceries or visit neighbours. By the early 1880s, they could even row to collect telegrams with news from abroad, as telegraph cables now linked towns on both sides of the inland sea with the world beyond. Such startling technological change was destined to become the norm in the coming decades.

The acceleration of technological change, 1880s–World War 

Technological change—from telephones, wireless telegraphs, railways, universal time and cinema to bicycles, automobiles and airplanes—swept through the Strait during the three decades before World War I. This ever-changing world seemingly stuck on fast-forward made the Strait seem smaller and more easily organised. New technologies diminished or removed some of the barriers posed by the inland sea and facilitated an industrial onslaught on the region’s resources, the Strait’s “resource rush.” Yet these same rapid changes also led many people to see the Strait as a calm and secluded refuge where they might escape the relentless pace of this industrial era.

The inland sea had been the natural focal point for early development in British Columbia, and steamships began to transform it at an accelerating rate as they linked the shores of the Strait more rapidly than sailboats, rowboats, canoes, horses and oxen could. Even while these other forms of transportation remained in use, steamers on the Terminal Steam Navigation Company’s Howe Sound Route, for example, had begun to leave the Vancouver dock every morning of the week by 1908, stopping at West Vancouver’s Great Northern Cannery, Caulfeild, Eagle Harbour Cannery, Bowen Island, Brunswick Beach (three days a week), Anvil Island, South Valley, Britannia, Potlatch (Thursdays only), Glacier Bay and Squamish. Steamer routes carried passengers to scores of other towns, villages and industrial sites around the Strait. Similarly, though the railway’s arrival was not as transformative here as it was on the Prairies, it did accelerate the West Coast’s integration with distant continental markets and made the Strait a conduit for evacuating natural resources from hundreds of thousands of square kilometres of Canadian hinterland. Railways also enabled mass immigration into the Strait in a way that ships did not. The speed and scale of this influx of land-hungry settlers and resource-hungry investors contributed greatly to what Richard White called a perpetual winter for Indigenous people, who were increasingly cut off from their traditional lands and resources.

Railroads had been transforming the geography of colonial domains since the mid-nineteenth century, and some have suggested that by 1900 they were “tightening their hold” on political, military, economic and private life as the rail networks became more dense.11 New rail lines linked with modern port facilities were stimulating the growth of “primate cities” that quickly overshadowed the surrounding communities. And the idea of an all-Canadian transcontinental railway consummated old British dreams of pan-Pacific trade links from resource-rich North America to the ocean’s prosperous and heavily populated western shore. Premier Amor de Cosmos had lost his petition in the 1870s to have Victoria declared the port terminus of a transcontinental railway. The Imperial Privy Council in London had declared that Vancouver Island did not need a railway because it already had “sheltered water communication” via the Strait and year-round ports that were “quite adequate to the needs of the population of the Island.”12 Vancouver Islanders, however, would not be denied their railway.

Once it became clear that no railroad would be built along Bute Inlet, Victoria’s merchants began to stress the simplicity of ferrying trains across the Strait to Nanaimo. From there, they could complete a transcontinental route into Victoria. Despite bitter complaints from colonists, most of the southeast coast of the Island became out of reach for years after the province transferred a vast tract of “railway reserve” to the federal government in 1883. Almost a quarter of Vancouver Island was offered to whoever could build a railway from Victoria to Seymour Narrows (north of Campbell River). The prize went to coal magnate Robert Dunsmuir, who, with financial backing from American partners and $750,000 in federal cash, laid 125 kilometres of track between Victoria and Nanaimo to complete the Esquimalt & Nanaimo (E&N) Railway. Prime Minister John A. Macdonald drove in its last spike a year before the first transcontinental train pulled into Vancouver.

The E&N Railway eventually transformed communities from Victoria to Comox and helped spread settlers along the Strait’s western shore, drawing them inland to places such as Duncan’s Crossing and away from steamer stops at Cowichan Bay and Maple Bay. Steamship services suffered as a result and had disappeared from the Island’s ports south of Nanaimo by 1905, when the CPR purchased the E&N. Two years later, in 1907, the railway company added two “mountain observation cars,” the first in Western Canada. In 1912, at the peak of the resource rush, the E&N carried 300,000 passengers a year, a growing number of them tourists. By 1914, the line had reached up the Island to Qualicum and Courtenay, with a spur line west out to Port Alberni. But it never did reach Seymour Narrows.

Railways transformed the western shore of the Strait in other ways as well. The E&N carried farm produce from the Cowichan Valley, lumber from Chemainus and coal from Nanaimo. A spur line delivered copper from Mount Sicker, near Duncan, to tidewater at Crofton. An electric tram, unconnected to the E&N, opened new opportunities for Saanich farmers to sell to customers in Victoria. Short logging railways climbing the eastern slopes of Vancouver Island and larger islands in the Strait brought some of the biggest changes. The Colonist newspaper exclaimed that only the “fringe” forests had been touched: “Lumber interests…are only awaiting railway communication before the hum of the sawmill will echo through the virgin woods and trainloads of lumber will roll down grade to salt water.”13

The transcontinental railway brought similar changes to the Strait’s southeast shore, already the scene of a brisk sawmilling industry. The Colonist described busy mills, boat builders and local railways on the Lower Fraser in 1873. Granville, a collection of mills, bars and brothels that had grown up on Burrard Inlet starting in the early 1860s, was “making very rapid strides in the way of improvement.”14 The Lower Mainland was then utterly transformed by the arrival of the transcontinental railroad. The new City of Vancouver was founded the year the railway arrived, in 1886. Vancouver’s combined role as rail terminus and deep-sea port ensured its future dominance of the inland sea. Land speculation was woven indelibly into the fabric of the new city, and every other place on the inland sea. Campbell River settler Frederick Lloyd Nunns confided in 1912 that he hoped the CPR might approach his land then find coal nearby, thereby elevating the market value of his pre-empted land. Tiny Savary Island, at the northern end of the Strait, was subdivided into thousands of fifty-foot lots the same year, in anticipation of soaring demand for recreational properties, buoyed by the opening of the new Powell River mill and the Panama Canal.

The arrival of the transcontinental railroad on the West Coast and construction of the CPR station in Vancouver, seen here in 1888, was the beginning of the city’s rapid ascendance to “primate settlement” on the inland sea. Image A-03232 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives.

As on Vancouver Island, the railroad’s arrival on Burrard Inlet (see photograph here) stimulated further railway construction. Interurban railways connected Vancouver with New Westminster and Lulu Island (Richmond) by the mid-1890s. Other lines extended into the farmlands of the lower Fraser Valley. There would, however, be no equivalent of the E&N running north along the rugged eastern shore of the Strait. The Howe Sound, Pemberton Valley and Northern Railway, incorporated in 1907 and started in 1912, extended south to Squamish. Taken over by the province and renamed the Pacific Great Eastern (PGE), it took another forty years to reach Burrard Inlet. The only other railways northwest of Howe Sound were for logging: short, steep-grade lines that would transform logging on the Mainland. Talk of railway-building engendered speculative frenzies, as people could see the power of railroads to seal the fate of towns and whole districts.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the growing feasibility of moving railway cars across the Strait by ferry kindled new hope in Vancouver Island’s business community. One proposed option was a line to English Bluff (in today’s Tsawwassen) from which railcars could be ferried across the Strait to a railway on the Saanich Peninsula, then south to Victoria. Another proposed rail–ferry connection would have run from Burrard Inlet to Gabriola Island, then by bridge to Nanaimo and on to Victoria. Even the challenging Bute Inlet route was briefly resurrected during discussions about additional transcontinental railways. Its proponents finally recognised, though, that bridging the narrow passages dividing what they now called the “Valdes group of islands” was probably less feasible than a “[railway] car ferry.”

As the age of railroads swept the Strait, timetables began to structure people’s movements and their lives. By the late 1880s, people could board a train in Victoria at a precise hour and get off at any of ten scheduled stops en route to Nanaimo, only four hours and forty minutes away. On the Mainland shore, similarly precise railway schedules proposed travel anywhere between Vancouver and the Atlantic coast. It was this reliable transportation connection to vast markets that made Vancouver an important hub, and its ascendance on the Strait grew as other new towns around the sea struggled to improve their own access to each other and to the world. Trains didn’t always stick to their schedules, but they were vastly more punctual than steamers. This fact put growing pressure on steamships to become more reliable. They remained fundamentally important for many communities around the Strait. Much local politicking involved attempts to secure government support for communities’ marine highway connection to the outside world, by building or improving local wharves, lighthouses and post offices. Every town strove to be on a coastal steamer route (see photograph here).

Earlier known for their capricious timetables, steamships on the Strait began to publish fixed departure times from major towns. The People’s Steam Navigation Company advertised the steamer Amelia’s runs between Victoria, Nanaimo and Comox a couple of times a week in the summer of 1888, “stopping at all the way ports,” including Denman Island, Nanaimo, Gabriola Island, Chemainus, Vesuvius and Burgoyne Bays on Saltspring Island, and Saanich. A decade later the SS Comox sailed out of Vancouver every Tuesday at nine a.m. and Thursdays and Saturdays at eleven a.m., headed for Texada, Lund, Shoal Bay and other places along the way. The SS Coquitlam left Burrard Inlet on Tuesdays at nine for Port Neville and Fridays at three for Texada and Lasqueti Islands, “calling at all intermediate ports” each trip. The schedules announced what time a ship left Victoria or Vancouver and its departure time from the northernmost port on the return trip. Arrival times along the way remained notoriously flexible.15

A rapid transition in the 1880s saw a few larger companies with more rigorous service and schedules replace the many small, independent, often unreliable shipping services that had previously plied the Strait. By 1900, Canadian Pacific (CP), the Union Steamship Company (USC) and Canadian National were the key players. The first two serviced everywhere from Vancouver and Victoria to island and peninsular towns, and a long, shifting list of logging and fishing camps, canneries, sawmills and mines throughout the Strait and beyond. The CP Navigation Company, which ran between ten and twenty distinctive black, white and yellow Princess ships around the inside coast, became the dominant player in coastal shipping into the middle of the next century.

The SS Joan and SS City of Nanaimo, steamers that sailed between the Mainland and Nanaimo. Arrival times were flexible, and though steamships weren’t always faster than sailing ships, they were more reliable because they were less constrained by winds and tides. Image B-04718 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives.

Larger settlements such as Vananda (on Texada Island), Comox and Nanaimo could count on service from more than one company, whereas smaller places had to be content with a single option. Of course, the steamship companies competed for the most promising new markets on the Strait. The Colonist reported in 1902, for example, that Vancouver interests were “putting on a steamer” to secure new business in the southern islands, as well as Ladysmith and Crofton.16 If CP boats did not stop there, a settlement needed to attract USC boats. The latter company, spawned from a Burrard Inlet ferry service in the late 1880s, filled a niche left by the larger CP company. It eventually grew to sixty ships and serviced a large number of smaller ports, especially out-of-the-way logging, fishing, canning and mining operations; isolated communities on islands of the northern Strait; and eventually even the Queen Charlotte Islands (Haida Gwaii) and southeast Alaska. Becoming a USC stop was a life-and-death issue for many of these smaller places with no other links to the world. A steamship opened up new options; suspension of service had the opposite effect.

A place could transcend the marine barrier if a steamship could be counted on to stop in there even once or twice a month. For those dwelling on islands and peninsulas or in fjords, this was especially important. If they had to, settlers on the southern Strait could go back to using small boats to move themselves and their produce to the larger towns on the Mainland or Vancouver Island. It happened when service to Gabriola Island was cut in the 1890s. Settlers farther up the Strait, however, faced bleaker prospects. The bottom line was that a person could only easily get off the remoter shorelines if they were on a steamer route. Looking for land as a new arrival on the coast at the beginning of the twentieth century, Francis John Barrow rejected an otherwise attractive Pender Island property because it was too far off the regular steamer route. Meanwhile, fishers, loggers or miners and their families living on Read Island, or in Desolation Sound or Pender Harbour, could find themselves in the heart of urban civilisation in a matter of hours by steamer. They could then return home with greater ease because scheduled departures from the largest towns were far more reliable. More important for many coastal dwellers, coastal steamers enabled reliable shipment of whatever one needed to obtain from the outside world or send to it. Mail and new faces could be expected with every arriving boat. Even if one had to row out to meet the steamer—as one did in the smallest places—steamships were a lifeline.

All of this rapid growth in steam-powered shipping stimulated ship building on the Strait, especially along Burrard Inlet and False Creek. Larger vessels were still brought in from Britain—sometimes in pieces to be assembled on the Strait—but smaller ones were built locally. A number of ships, such as the Princess Mary, the Comox, the Chelhosin and others, achieved almost legendary status, evoking what writer Roderick Haig-Brown in Campbell River remembered as a universal “sense of friendliness and gratitude.” Publisher Howard White compared travelling on the Sunshine Coast’s steamships to the stimulating and festive atmosphere of the Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

Steamships also catered to the growing number of people who sought recreation on the Strait after the 1880s. CP boats connected with the CPR’s transcontinental trains at the beginning of the twentieth century. The Colonist reported in 1907 that the CPR steamer Princess Victoria, “the most palatial craft in the coasting business,” landed its transcontinental tourists in Victoria “in time for dinner.”17 Settlements like Bowen Island and Sechelt that started as logging sites became destinations for urbanites riding the steamships to weekend retreats or longer holidays spent in seaside hotels and cottages. With Vancouver consolidating its role as the Strait’s dominant settlement, Burrard Inlet soon became the one place a person could depart from to reach any corner of the Strait, as long as it was on a steamer route. It also became the place that people from those corners turned to, more than any other, to relax, shop, drink, socialise, escape from work or look for it.

Beyond the Strait, steamers were slowly replacing sailing ships on ocean routes. Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey estimated in The Tyranny of Distance that the ocean-going steamships of 1914 were twice as fast as the average sailing ship of the 1850s and considerably more reliable. Long-distance shipping costs declined substantially, and with the opening of the Panama Canal, the Strait’s mines, mills and canneries could competitively ship their goods by steamship to virtually any port in the world.

With the rail link established, Canadian Pacific launched trans-Pacific mail, pas-senger and freight services, and its Empress ships went on to dominate the trans-Pacific passenger trade until the mid-twentieth century. Many other transoceanic lines also put into Vancouver by World War I, among them the Canadian-Australian Royal Mail Steamships, the Hamburg America Line, the East Asiatic Company and the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company. Ocean-going steamers arrived in the Strait’s other ports in larger numbers as well, in order to load the rapidly growing output of its primary industries (see Figure 3).

Increases in marine traffic stimulated demand for more navigational support, including lighthouses, pilots, port authorities, navigation rules, and charts of tides and currents. Sailing ships were in slow decline but were still widely used and continued to run aground or sink regularly, particularly in winter. By the mid-1880s, sternwheelers, which had crossed the Strait for twenty-five years, had been declared dangerously insecure and banned from navigation on the sea, much to the consternation of local merchants who depended on them. Around the same time, the Colonist newspaper—which had earlier reported so many marine tragedies on the Strait and had worked hard to paint the inland sea as too dangerous for international shipping—wrote: “[Since 1858] the waters have been traversed at all seasons and by all description of craft…[and] not a single mishap has occurred.”18 This was not the first or last time that depictions of navigational risks on the Strait would be subject to considerable licence, depending on who was writing and to what end.

The Comox Wagon Road in 1911: Note the old-growth Douglas fir. The E&N Railway had not yet reached the Comox Valley, and travel by sea was still more comfortable and reliable than road. Image G-02423 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives.

Whatever the shifting hyperbole of local journalists, both steamers and sailboats continued to face considerable navigational hazards on the Strait. American coal boats were frequent visitors and victims. The coal ship Thrasher from San Francisco ran aground on rocks near Gabriola Reef on a calm, clear night in July 1880 while being towed by two tugs. Two years were spent trying to get the ship off the rocks before it finally sank, leading to legal wrangling that ended up at the Privy Council in London in 1884. Two years later, the American ship John Rosenfeld, with all its fittings and 3,900 tons of Vancouver Island coal aboard, was sold at public auction as it lay wrecked off Saturna Island. Pleasure boats also fell victim to the Strait’s hazards. The Colonist reprinted stories from Seattle papers late in the summer of 1884 about the pleasure yacht Lotus, which had left Port Moody to cruise the Strait two weeks earlier, then disappeared.19

Some notoriously dangerous places claimed growing lists of victims: Quadra Island, Gabriola Reef, the First and Second Narrows of Burrard Inlet and the shifting sandbars at the mouth of the Fraser River. Historian Jeanette Taylor recounted in The Quadra Story that Billy Assu and other young men from the Cape Mudge reserve on Quadra Island risked their lives often in those years to rescue shipwreck victims. Most of the Strait’s hundreds of kilometres of shoreline remained uncharted and most of the hazardous reefs, rocks and shallows went unmarked throughout the 1880s. Only in the early 1890s would the steamship Quadra under Captain John Walbran begin systematically mapping and marking such dangerous stretches around the Strait. He concentrated on sites that had already claimed victims and routes that were followed by ships exporting natural resources.

Figure 3. Major ports on the Strait, 1914. These were critical for moving the Strait’s resources onto the ocean highways.

In addition to fixed hazards, fog was a worry, especially in autumn, because it increased the risks of running aground and of collisions between vessels. Foghorns were erected at the entrance to Burrard Inlet in the late 1880s and the entrance to Nanaimo harbour soon after. A decade later, Ottawa’s DMF announced it was installing a foghorn on the Ballenas Islands off Parksville that would blast every fifteen seconds. The fogs were getting heavier, at least partly due to the increased burning of sawmill waste and logging slash in hills around the Strait.

Figure 4. Lighthouses on the Strait and at its entrances by 1908 (with dates of establishment): these helped settlers transcend the marine barrier.

More than any other aid to navigation, though, lighthouses transformed the Strait. New lights were erected on the Strait’s southern approaches, the southern islands, the entrance to Baynes Sound (see photograph here) and the First Narrows early in the resource rush to ensure the safe passage of passengers and cargo. Miners streaming north to the Klondike in the late 1890s stimulated another flush of lighthouse construction at places along the way: Sisters and Ballenas Islands and Cape Mudge on the southern tip of Quadra (see Figure 4). These lights, often 30 metres or more above sea level, occupied sites that had been of strategic importance for Indigenous people long before the settlers’ arrival. Projecting their beacons across the sea, they became local landmarks and powerful symbols of the Strait’s new industrial age. Some became important social institutions and their keepers, local celebrities.

The Yellow Rock Light on Chrome Island, off Denman Island. The south entrance to Baynes Sound became heavily travelled by ships loading coal at Union Bay. Ten died when the steamer Alpha wrecked here in 1900. Image I-55237 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives.

New systems of governance—regulations, reporting structures and the bureaucracies to implement them—were needed for the administration of these new technologies. The DMF was required to report regularly on its achievements and related expenditures to Parliament; local papers followed these reports carefully and stimulated demand for further reductions in navigational hazards. The safer the Strait became, the more inexperienced navigators ventured onto it, even in winter, and the more government help they needed. The waves of people pouring north to the Klondike at end of the century were reminiscent of those who had come for the Cariboo gold rush forty years earlier, and this increase in vessel traffic through the Strait led to a further surge in marine accidents and yet another long list of demands for Ottawa to make the sea safer. One result was that by 1900, local papers were publishing weather forecasts. Then they began to report on actual weather conditions around the sea throughout the day. The DMF oversaw tidal surveys soon after and started to publish reliable estimates of the timing and scale of daily tides, as well as the direction and velocity of currents at various locations around the sea. The value of this new information for local trade and commerce, said the Colonist, could “hardly be overestimated.” It proudly declared the new Canadian tidal survey results so “absolutely dependable” that they could be incorporated into the charts of the British Admiralty.20

The settlers’ new ports around the Strait (see photographs here, here, here and here) were the portals through which the fruits of the resource rush could be shipped to world markets. By 1890, Nanaimo harbour was shipping 400,000 tons of coal a year. A newer coal port at Union Bay in the Comox Valley also moved hundreds of thousands of tons annually by 1900. But Burrard Inlet had rapidly become the inland sea’s most significant port. Lumber exports out of Hastings Mill and Moodyville had reached over 25 million board feet a year by the mid-1880s, then doubled over the next decade. Coastal and ocean-going traffic continued to grow throughout the resource rush, and wood remained Burrard Inlet’s main export. More and more wood and tinned salmon were being shipped from the mouth of the Fraser as well.

Modern communications technology also helped bind coastal communities into tighter networks. The Dominion government introduced wireless technology to the inland sea in 1907, linking wireless stations at Shotbolt Hill in Victoria and Point Grey outside Vancouver. Telegraph was the dominant form of modern communication for a while, but as early as 1890 Vancouver Island also had a telephone link to the Mainland. By 1911, the province as a whole had 20,000 telephones, most of them in Vancouver. By 1914 some of the larger islands in the Strait, and even a few of the smaller ones, had telephones.

While communication links improved, Burrard Inlet and the Lower Fraser remained the Lower Mainland’s principal ports, though other options were considered. The CPR briefly thought about developing docks at Kitsilano Point in the 1880s and revisited this option, with plans being drawn up for massive piers, railyards and warehouses there three decades later. These plans were eventually shelved, at least partly on account of potential difficulties securing Kitsilano Indian Reserve land. As well, a more grandiose scheme had emerged a couple of years earlier for a new harbour facility between the north and south arms of the Fraser, where Vancouver Airport is now located. It called for two-and-a-half kilometres of piers, a new industrial zone and a railway through Point Grey to Burrard Inlet. This plan was also eventually set aside.

Bold optimism prevailed in the final years before World War I, and the prospect of increased ship traffic through the Lower Mainland after the opening of the Panama Canal animated local dreams. Although no major new ports were actually built in those years, private interests and the federal government invested heavily in expanding and upgrading existing facilities. Ottawa then incorporated the Vancouver Harbour Commission in 1913 to protect its claim to the Strait as Canada’s western sea highway to global markets. A similar body was created for the north and middle arms of the Fraser. And federally appointed harbour commissioners were empowered to establish rules governing harbour navigation, construction and maintenance. They administered waterfront property, policed the harbours and guided development of the ports.

The global economic downturn in 1913 followed by the onset of World War I muted the expected growth in port activity, however. Initially the only big increase in traffic was in grain exports, mostly wheat from the new Prairie provinces. Once it was proven that grain would not spoil when passing through the tropical climate of Panama, grain exports through Vancouver increased a hundredfold in the first few years after the canal opened.

Coal docks at Union Bay in the Comox Valley were moving hundreds of thousands of tons annually by 1900. Image A-04577 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives.

Steam-powered tugs proliferated on the Strait after 1890 to guide the sailing ships that transported this grain and other resources across the ocean. Slow but powerful, these small vessels drew little water and were highly manoeuvrable. They were well suited to the inland sea, where they were indispensable for moving larger vessels through difficult stretches and raw materials around the Strait. The business of moving log booms with tugs from remote sites to sawmills around Vancouver grew rapidly after 1900, dominated by a handful of companies. Tugs also began pulling scows loaded with sand and gravel from the Strait’s beaches and quarries to Vancouver building sites.

A sheltered harbour and proximity to Cumberland’s mines ensured a steady stream of deep-sea vessels, as well as sailors in Comox taverns. Image E-00409 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives.

Although steam was the most important power source for transportation on land and sea at the time, gasoline-powered engines were beginning to appear. Reginald Pidcock, an early Indian agent on the northern Strait, had always travelled by canoe through his large “Agency.” When he died in 1902, his successor was soon using a gas-powered launch. Similarly, by this time the BC Provincial Police had already begun using their own gas launch to patrol the Strait.

Ships loading at Hastings Mill in Vancouver in the 1880s. Note the absence of steam-powered vessels. Image D-04081 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives.

Some observers began to claim that modern technology had tamed the Strait. An article published in Nanaimo in 1910 reported that CPR steamers had been crossing the inland sea for twenty years in all kinds of weather and had never had an accident. The Colonist suggested that the Strait (and Puget Sound) had become “full of safe harbours” and there was no longer any “rock or shoal that is a menace to navigation.”21 Yet, with more and more people living and working on and around the Strait, other stories suggested it was premature to banish lingering fears. Ten people perished at the end of 1900 when the Alpha, carrying a cargo of tinned salmon to Japan, foundered by the Chrome Island lighthouse off the southern tip of Denman Island. A few months later the Princess Louise, with a full cargo and twenty-five passengers, ran aground off the Thormanby Islands north of Sechelt. Later in 1901 the steamer Hattie, carrying 175 passengers and a small fortune in gold from Skagway, ran aground between Lasqueti and Texada islands. A couple of years after that, the Vadso was lost on a reef north of Comox Harbour. In 1911, the Iroquois foundered off the north end of the Saanich Peninsula, drowning twenty-five passengers.

Salmon ships like these on the Fraser River in the 1890s would have needed help from steam tugs to navigate the Strait. Image C-00471 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives

Travel by boat remained the most expedient way to get to and from many places on the Strait, and the sea remained an essential highway linking settler communities. Yet in this age of steam, many people were still moving around the Strait under human power or sail. Canoes and rowboats (see photograph here) were still being built and were widely used in virtually every community. Indigenous people were still making cedar dugouts for their own use and for trade with settlers (see photograph here). These could be huge: a Comox elder interviewed in the 1950s recalled her father and uncle launching a 21-metre canoe on the Comox estuary in the mid-1880s. The Colonist reported that a 9-metre dugout canoe had been mysteriously abandoned on the southern Strait in 1896.22

Dinghies such as these seen on the beach beside Alexander Street in Vancouver in 1899 used both oars and sail. Image B-04128 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives.

Geologist George Dawson carried out his extensive geological survey of the Strait in the mid-1880s entirely under sail, and Michael Manson conducted his lucrative business supplying Texada Island mines and various reserves in the northern Strait the same way. As in earlier decades, sailing the Strait remained an adventure. An old Saltspring Island settler recounted his father’s stories to Frederick Marsh—possibly embellished over time—of moving the family’s livestock across the Strait by schooner when he was a boy. On one memorable trip, the aging captain called the boy to the tiller in a gale off Point Grey and then promptly dropped dead, leaving him to run aground in False Creek, where he discovered rats had eaten the skipper’s nose as he lay dead on the deck.

Well-crafted and seaworthy canoes, like this one in Vancouver Harbour in the 1890s, would be widely used on the Strait by both Indigenous people and settlers for decades to come. Image H-04742 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives.

Sailing, paddling or rowing could be treacherous, especially if one didn’t pay enough attention to weather or tides, but they offered a fallback in places where isolated settlers could not count on a steamship to pull in at the right time, if at all. Denman Island’s farmers relied entirely on oars and sail to move their produce to markets as far away as Nanaimo until they built a wharf and attracted a steamship in the 1880s. Even after steamers started calling in, some continued to row their produce across to the big island. Farmers on the southern islands and Howe Sound regularly braved winds and currents to row their goods to the Lower Mainland. The Thulin brothers at Lund got their supplies delivered from Burrard Inlet every few weeks, but when they needed extra supplies, they had to row almost 200 kilometres to Vancouver. Charles Groth, an early settler on Galiano Island, pulled on his oars to get everywhere—especially across Plumper Pass to pick up mail and groceries on Mayne Island. Groth also pulled to overcome the intense isolation of his new life, as did many others.

So, for those people connected by steamship the Strait was a highway, whereas for others on the most isolated reaches of the sea who weren’t connected by steamship, the Strait became even more of a barrier in a world increasingly dependent on national and international trade. But the rapid spread of gas-powered technologies would soon drive further change in relations between humans and the rest of nature around the inland sea.

Boats, trains and automobiles in the interwar years

Trends visible on the Strait before World War I became far more important in the interwar years. As gasoline-powered technology became cheaper, automobile use expanded significantly, though the Strait’s road network, like its railways, developed unevenly. Gasoline-powered logging trucks (see photograph here) and fishing boats allowed resources to be extracted across a wider area even as the processing of this harvested wood and fish became more centralised around fewer major centres. Port activity grew rapidly through the 1920s, particularly in Vancouver. This was a time, too, when steamships and smaller boats did brisk business moving people to a growing collection of pavilions, hotels, cottages and camps at recreational sites all around the sea (chapter 6). The companies expanded their fleets in the 1920s to accommodate this growth. Yet the ports stagnated along with the rest of the economy during the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the steamships that had figured so prominently on the Strait in the first half of the century would barely survive the 1940s. Throughout, the Strait remained an important actor in people’s lives, even as its roles continued to change.

Gasoline-powered trucks like this one at Rock Bay were replacing trains in the woods by the 1930s, allowing logging to extend farther up slopes and do more damage to spawning streams. Image F-08875 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives.

Isolated towns on the Strait, if they were big and prosperous places like Powell River, could attract regular steamship service and thereby overcome the marine barrier. More marginal places such as Lasqueti or Read Islands expanded and contracted with the ebb and flow of local logging and fishing, and their steamship services came and went with them. By World War II, it was only these communities on islands or cut off by the Mainland fjords that remained fully dependent on steamships to link them with the rest of the Strait community and the world beyond. Indigenous people, now mostly marginalised on small reserves around the Strait, were encouraged by Ottawa to congregate into larger settlements to ease government’s burden in providing services to them.

The marine highway remained critically important for the Strait’s resource industries. Vancouver Island mines continued to ship coal to distant markets, though their shipments started to decline in the 1920s (chapter 3). Coal deposits on Texada Island and the Malaspina Peninsula had also attracted investors’ attention for a while, largely because their coal could be moved cheaply by sea. On the Mainland, mills still depended on the sea to transport logs and to export their lumber, pulp and paper. Many loggers living around the sea depended on steamers, especially Union Steamships, to get them in and out of isolated logging operations, most of which by this time were north of the Strait. Powerful tugs, many diesel- or gasoline-powered by the 1920s, were indispensable on the inland sea, particularly for moving log booms and chip barges. Booms had become familiar features on the open Strait and in protected bays and inlets, where they rode out storms (see Figure 5). Gathering logs escaped from booms became a new line of business. Commercial fishing on the Strait remained an important industry (chapter 4), especially for salmon, herring and groundfish borne by sturdy wooden fish boats built in communities on the shores of the sea.

The number of ocean-going ships visiting the Strait soared after 1914, and port activity became an important part of the local economy on Burrard Inlet. Deep-sea vessels putting into the Port of Vancouver grew by ten times, from 130 ships in 1913 to 330 in 1919 to over 1,300 in 1928. Roughly 40 percent of these boats were of British registration, 25 percent American and 15 percent Japanese. By 1930, close to 25,000 smaller vessels working the coast also put into Burrard Inlet annually. The tonnage of freight shipped through Vancouver expanded from around 350,000 tons in 1913 to about 5 million tons in 1928. Exports were mainly a mix of raw materials, with grain being the most important by volume and value. By 1929, Vancouver was exporting more grain than any other port on the Pacific coast of the Americas. By far the most valuable import was Asian silk for the North American clothing industry.

More passengers also moved through Vancouver’s port in the 1920s (see photograph here). Between 1924 and 1926 alone, that number rose from 800,000 to over 1.2 million. The Railway and Harbour Report, a paper prepared for Vancouver’s Town Planning Commission in 1927, confirmed that such robust growth in passenger numbers was important not only for the revenue it brought but also for its advertising value: “Few cities,” claimed the report’s authors, “have so great an opportunity of securing a personal contact with citizens from every corner of the world.”24 However, the report also noted the pressure all this activity was putting on port facilities in Burrard Inlet.

Figure 5. Routes for moving logs from Comox to Fraser Mills in the interwar years (from Mackie 2000).23

Now controlled by the federal government’s newly established Port Authority, the Port of Vancouver extended along the southern shore for nearly 10 kilometres between the First and Second Narrows. Canadian Pacific Railway yards occupied almost a quarter of this area. Other rail interests and the Harbour Commission accounted for another quarter, various industries for a further quarter, leaving a final quarter as “undeveloped waterfront.” Most of the 9 kilometres of the northern shore of the inlet designated for the port were also “undeveloped.” But even there, sawmills, creosoting plants, booming grounds, docks, boat builders and other industries already occupied thousands of metres of shoreline. The authors of the report noted that the port “belongs to the Dominion more than to Vancouver. It is an essential national asset (see photograph here) and should be recognised as such.” And they underlined the need to “[conserve] for strictly harbour purposes the entire water frontage of Burrard Inlet.”25 As other stakeholders’ demands for access to the shore grew, so did the federal government’s fear of losing its access.

Other ports and harbours around the Strait developed during this period as well. The North Arm of the Fraser River was an important booming ground, storing logs especially for the massive Fraser Mills complex at New Westminster. Across the Strait in Nanaimo, an agreement made in 1924 divided jurisdiction for shoreline development beyond its old port between the federal and provincial governments. Smaller places struggled to build or maintain their own wharves with as much support as their local MPs could cajole from the federal government. Others meanwhile prospered greatly from moving high-value illegal alcohol into the US during their Prohibition years, and preferred to keep the federal government at arm’s length.

Everyone seemed to be on the move in the years just after World War I. The steamship companies increased their business with excursion boats and shoreline recreational properties. The Union Steamship Company, for example, built up a valuable excursion trade along the Mainland shore, linked with its properties on Bowen Island and around Sechelt. Canadian Pacific developed a rival excursion-boat destination on Nanaimo’s Newcastle Island. Writer Francis Dickie on Quadra Island tried hard to convince the USC to give him free passage on its ships. He sent autographed copies of his magazine articles, claiming they were developing tourism on the BC coast. “[Y]ou will have particular interest in seeing this valuable tribute I have paid to the fishing attractions of one point on this coast served solely by the Union Steamers,” he wrote before noting “the large outlay” that USC made annually for advertising. “Knowing as you so fully do the immense value of articles of this nature in attracting travellers,” he continued, “a few paragraphs in…a magazine or newspaper or book outweigh in reader attention value thousands of dollars of paid advertising.”26 Dickie kept no record of the company’s response.

The SS Empress of Canada is seen entering Vancouver Harbour in 1925. Burrard Inlet was now Canada’s Pacific portal, the port a valuable asset for the local and national economies. Image I-31453 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives.

The links between the ports and the railways grew even stronger after World War I, as the rail companies became key investors in Vancouver’s wharves and warehouses. Across the Strait on Vancouver Island, despite construction of better highways and a rapidly growing automobile fleet, passengers were still making tens of thousands of trips annually on E&N trains (see photograph here) between Victoria and Courtenay, which had become the centre of a vibrant logging, mining and farming economy in the Comox Valley. The railways were also carrying more recreational passengers around the Strait. Incorporated in 1912 with the goal of linking Vancouver to Prince George, the PGE initially reached from North Vancouver to the new communities of Whytecliff and Horseshoe Bay. Describing the latter, the West Vancouver government boasted in 1918 that it had “natural grandeur…rippling waters…[and a] fringe of enticing beach.”27 A couple of years later, ferry service began between Horseshoe Bay and Bowen Island, and by 1926 the Union Steamship Company and the PGE were jointly offering excursions to the head of Howe Sound by ship and then on to Alta Lake by rail.

Seen from the Marine Building in 1938, Vancouver Harbour—now classed as an “essential national asset”—was recovering from the effects of the Great Depression. Image I-30079 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives.

Ships and trains remained important means of transportation around the Strait, but increasingly, as in most other parts of North America, the ability to own and operate a car was rapidly becoming a key determinant of self-respect and “middle class decency.”28 The automobile fleet on US roads multiplied a hundredfold between 1908 and 1927, from 200,000 to 20 million. British Columbia’s own motor vehicle fleet increased five times faster between 1906 and 1930, from 200 to 100,000. So it’s hardly surprising that the Strait, like so many places, was to be transformed by highways and cars (see photograph here). People began moving around the sea more and more by road, but most of their destinations remained beside the Strait.

Rail had become indispensable for transporting people and goods along the Strait’s Vancouver Island shore by the 1920s, displacing much seaborne traffic, but highways had already begun to displace rail. Image F-06559 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives.

Members of the Pidcock family, from Courtenay and Quadra Island, earlier remarked in their journals mostly about the weather, fishing and lumbering; after World War I, when the family opened a garage in Courtenay, their focus shifted to automobiles. Although still mindful of the weather, they became increasingly preoccupied with the state of various cars, family road trips and beach picnics up and down the highway that now stretched along the entire western shore of the Strait. On most of the other side of the sea, highways were slower to come. Horseshoe Bay was accessible only by water or rail until the late 1920s, when the seaside road that finally linked it with Burrard Inlet towns was considered an engineering marvel. Unemployed men earned ten cents an hour in the 1930s working along Howe Sound on the Squamish Highway; it would not be completed until the 1950s. Summer cruiser and amateur filmmaker Francis John Barrow described the “celebrated [new] road which joins Gibson’s Landing and Pender Harbour” during the summer of 1939. He was impressed by the “rock work” and the highway’s exorbitant cost but met only one car on the road during hours of walking. Two years later, he reported driving for the first time on another new highway that linked the wharf at Lund to Powell River, then continued a few more miles south in the direction of Jervis Inlet.29

Improved roads changed patterns of movement and offered new opportunities for tourism. Here, a car pauses at a viewpoint on Malahat Drive in 1920. Image D-09356 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives.

Some of the larger islands developed their own road networks. Denman Islanders declared theirs the Island of Roads in the 1940s and took great pride in their 40 kilometres of “very good roads” and their fleet of forty cars.30 The arrival of cars on relatively big islands, such as Denman and Quadra, enhanced the islanders’ sense of community. Previously connected only by boat or rough tracks, they had often found it more difficult to reach other parts of their own islands than to reach other shores. This growing sense of “island consciousness” might also be strengthened by isolation from the expanding highway network linking communities on Vancouver Island and the Mainland. Smaller islands that had earlier worked hard to attract steamships now had to get car ferries. Discussions about ferry services, run more or less well by local entrepreneurs, figure prominently in regional histories of the interwar years. As with steamships, securing a car ferry service could open up new opportunities, whereas losing a ferry greatly complicated people’s lives. Islands close to the Vancouver Island or Mainland shores, such as Denman and Bowen, had car ferries by the 1920s, as did the larger southern islands, though their service was not always reliable.

Other technologies contributed to the breaking down of the marine barrier. The first dial telephones in the province were installed in the modern little industrial town of Powell River in 1921, and even Lasqueti Island, far out in the Strait, had telephone service by the 1930s. Airmail sent from major towns like Vancouver and Victoria to Britain took only four days by 1939, but service wasn’t of the same quality everywhere around the Strait: Francis Dickie complained mightily that same year about his deteriorating mail service at Heriot Bay on the east side of Quadra Island. Steady improvements in navigational technology and infrastructure meant that vessels in the Strait faced fewer daunting hazards, yet these remained significant. A new hazard appeared in Vancouver Harbour, where a low bridge was built across the Second Narrows in 1925. Sixteen vessels collided with the bridge during its first five years of operation, and it was closed for much of the early 1930s.

Towns around the Strait were as hard hit as other parts of Western Canada by the ferocious economic downturn that lasted for a decade after 1929. Rapid growth in transportation infrastructure and activities on and around the Strait—like the general optimism and economic prosperity of the 1920s—did not continue into the 1930s. The bottom had fallen out of coal markets by then, with a predictable effect on ship traffic and with fewer passengers embarking on recreational excursions. Yet steamships, trains, ferries and automobiles continued to move people across and around the inland sea in familiar ways through the 1930s and the war years. More changes would come not long after the war was over.

The Strait in the era of the automobile, 1945–1980s

The ways that people and goods moved around the inland sea continued to change after 1945, though not as dramatically as in earlier years. An effervescent post-war economy stimulated spending on transportation infrastructure in general. The federally administered Port of Vancouver continued its inexorable rise as import and export trade through the Strait’s ports grew rapidly. New roads and ferries made it possible for more vehicles to cross the Strait and reach the communities expanding quickly along its shores by the 1960s (see photograph here). Cars came to dominate everywhere except along a few steep-sided Mainland fjords and on the smaller or more isolated islands. With steamships’ days of supremacy now over, replaced by cars for most people, perceptions of the Strait’s role as both a barrier and a highway once again evolved.

Growing car ownership, better highways and ferries, and rising incomes all stimulated demand for waterfront recreation in places like Qualicum Beach, seen here in 1949. Image I-28490 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives.

In the first years after 1945, CP and USC steamships still carried goods and passengers more or less regularly to Williamsons Landing, Hopkins Landing, Gibsons Landing, Roberts Creek, Sechelt and so on up the Mainland coast and on to many of the northern islands. On the largest southern islands, “boat day” was still an event—an opportunity to meet friends and gossip at the dock while waiting for the Princess Mary. Many vessels were fitted out to take a few cars or trucks on board, though they were not well suited to this task. In fact, the steamships’ decline was not just a result of the automobile’s rise. Many smaller communities had been shrinking for decades due to the centralisation of canning and sawmilling (chapter 3), so fewer places needed steamship service. With logging camps moving farther inland and farther north as accessible stands around the inland sea were cut, companies often used their own boats or flew their workers into camps on float planes.

The USC lost its federal government subsidy in 1958 and, unable to make a profit without it, sold its last ships a year later. By the 1960s, only a few small coastal freighters still serviced ports of call on the Strait’s northeast shore. Denman Islanders mourned their CP ship service, lost in 1954, but at least they had a car ferry. Hornby Island lost its steamer service around the same time, and its resort owners went through difficult years before getting their own ferry. After thirty years of lobbying, in the mid-1950s, a ferry service across Jervis Inlet finally linked Powell River with the outside world by highway. Similar changes happened around the Strait, with new ferry runs starting and established ones growing, and by the late 1950s most of the Strait’s larger islands had reliable car ferry services.

Two car ferries a day linked Vancouver on the Mainland with Nanaimo on Vancouver Island most of the year in the 1940s, five times a day in summer. By the early 1950s, Puget Sound’s Black Ball Lines had begun providing service that stimulated coastal ferry development and shook up the industry. Its boats could load and discharge vehicles at both ends, making it easier to meet ambitious timetables, and it could offer a prompter and more reliable service than Canadian Pacific’s Princess ships. CP’s car ferry service to Nanaimo was comfortable but its procedures for ticketing, feeding passengers and loading and unloading vehicles in particular remained slow and cumbersome. The arrival of the innovative Black Ball also shook up sleepy beachside towns like Horseshoe Bay and Gibsons Landing. In 1953, over the protests of Horseshoe Bay’s alarmed residents, the company launched its Nanaimo service. By the mid-1950s, a total of twenty ferries a day were plying this run, carrying more than 350,000 vehicles and 1.25 million passengers a year.

Lasqueti Island, most islands in Howe Sound and all of the islands in Jervis Inlet remained without ferry service, but not for lack of trying. In the 1950s, an enterprising Lasqueti resident corresponded with the provincial attorney general, Robert Bonner, and with the Sons of Freedom sect of Doukhobors, many of whose members were serving time in provincial prisons in the Fraser Valley after participating in violent protests in their Kootenay communities. The Lasqueti businessman worked to convince both sides that Lasqueti’s tranquil beauty, sunrises and sunsets over the water could calm these troubled people—the only thing needed was a car ferry. The Doukhobors returned to their homes in the Kootenays, however, and Lasqueti never did get car ferry service.

By the end of the 1950s, the ferries were headed for a crisis. Black Ball, by then the main ferry service to Vancouver Island and the only one servicing the Sechelt and Malaspina peninsulas, was repeatedly shut down by strikes in the summer of 1958. The province announced the same year that it would establish its own ferry service between Tsawwassen and the Saanich Peninsula. After unsuccessful attempts to improve the reliability of the Black Ball and CP services, the province decided to greatly expand its own presence in the business. W.A.C. Bennett, the energetic leader of the province’s free-enterprise government, declared that ferry connections between Vancouver Island and the Mainland “shall not be subject either to the whim of union policy nor to the indifference of federal agencies.”31 His government bought all of the Black Ball ferries and docks around the Strait for $6.7 million in 1961.

Victoria’s new British Columbia Ferry Authority was meant to help ensure that Vancouver Island shared in the province’s economic growth during those years. By the mid-1960s, ferry traffic was increasing at over 10 percent a year and Premier Bennett often boasted that his province now owned “the largest ferry fleet in the world.” The fleet was growing especially to accommodate tourist traffic during the summer, when close to three-quarters of all vehicles carried were for recreational travel and nearly 40 percent were from outside the province. Long delays were common at that time of year, yet expanding the fleet to remedy the situation led to excess carrying capacity in the winter.

Rapid growth in ferry services (see photograph here) pleased most people around the sea, at least initially, as more car drivers wanted to get to more places and spend less time getting there. The stubborn reality was that for drivers, the Strait was a barrier. In the late 1960s, Patrick McGeer, leader of a small Liberal caucus in the provincial legislature, proposed a new time-saving route across the Strait from Point Grey to Gabriola Island by ferry, and then on to Nanaimo by bridge. Many Gabriola Islanders vigorously opposed this “improvement,” but McGeer’s plan had supporters elsewhere. Improved ferry service to Bowen Island stimulated a steep rise in real-estate values as that island became more tightly bound to Vancouver. When USC sold its recreational property at Snug Cove on Bowen Island for development, most buyers were not cottagers but permanent residents, including commuters to Vancouver.

Not everyone wanted to see ever more, ever larger ferries, however. The southern islands’ location between the province’s two largest cities made them especially susceptible to rapid development after World War II, and improved ferry service fuelled this growth. Ambitious planners from the newly formed Islands Trust, a planning authority created in the mid-1970s to preserve the unique nature of the Strait’s islands (chapter 6), aimed to reduce private vehicle traffic, not just because of congested ferries but out of concern that the growing number of cars were transforming the bucolic rural character of the islands that the Trust was mandated to protect. A ministerial brief in 1975 stated: “Trust policy states that ever increasing car ferry traffic is contributing to the destruction of the islands.”32 Bowen Island, Gibsons and similar places seemed destined to become car-infested playgrounds or suburbs of the growing metropolis on Burrard Inlet, and the Trust was determined to prevent the spread of this trend on “its” islands. Horseshoe Bay (see photograph here) had become chronically congested on land and sea, with growing evidence of the danger of recreational boats and ferries sharing the same small harbour. Its value as recreational space was greatly reduced within a few years of the construction of the ferry terminal. Elsewhere, the new and expanding terminals were consuming tidal flats and foreshore, destroying prime fish and seabird habitat in the process.

At Swartz Bay, the ferry MV Cy Peck loads for Saltspring Island in 1947. Islands needed car ferries to ensure their economic survival but by the early 1970s, some wondered if the ferries had succeeded too well. Image I-20713 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives.

Highway development around the sea was closely linked with the ferry network and followed a similar rhythm: a slow-moving late 1940s followed by rapid acceleration through the 1950s and into the 1960s and the beginning of pushback in the 1970s. Many of the islands still had charming rural roads and trails after World War II and functional but inefficient road networks. Writer Frederick Marsh noted that many southern islands had no road linking the whole island, just a collection of tracks starting in one place and ending in another. Each track he found on Galiano had its own character and moods, by turns “stimulating, subdued, warmly colourful, aloof and austere.”33 In contrast, Saltspring—which was bigger and more populous—had 200 kilometres of roads by the late forties. Texada Islanders vigorously lobbied the province for improvements to their road system after 1945 and got them. A bridge restored the overland road link between North and South Pender Islands, which had been dredged early in the century for a steamship canal. Lasqueti’s roads improved and its tiny vehicle fleet grew, even without a car ferry.

Horseshoe Bay, seen here in 1955, was transformed from a quiet beach resort into the Strait’s busiest ferry terminal. The Upper Levels Highway opened in 1960, easing access from Vancouver. Image I-27993 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives

On the heavily populated Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island shores, highways became busier and much more developed. Similarly, traffic increased tremendously along highways built earlier on the Sechelt and Malaspina peninsulas after ferries linked them to the outside world in the 1950s. In Sunshine Coast, Howard White described the change in 1950s Sechelt, where traffic moving through town between the new ferry terminals at Gibsons Landing and Earls Cove began to overshadow the older axis of movement between the Strait and Sechelt Inlet. The province finally opened the beautiful, treacherous highway up the east shore of Howe Sound in 1958. By the 1960s some had begun to question whether all the new highway spending was appropriate. A controversial proposal in 1966 to build a highway through Stanley Park to a second bridge across the First Narrows evoked a ferocious reaction from citizens and city officials determined to protect the splendour of their seaside park. The Islands Trust a decade later tangled with the provincial Department of Highways, insisting it was “extremely important” for highway engineers to relax the “urban” standards that were leading to “excessive tree clearing and unsightly cuts and fills” on Trust islands’ rustic roads.34

Highways eclipsed passenger railways along the sea as decisively as ferries had displaced steamships. The E&N still ran an average of twenty trains a day between Victoria and Courtenay in 1946, but by 1955 just one train a day went in each direction. In the late 1960s, CP Rail began applying for permission to discontinue the E&N passenger service, pleading that it was “uneconomical.” Recalling the 800,000 hectares of rich forest land originally granted to the railway from Saanich to Seymour Narrows, the government repeatedly demurred. In the 1970s, CP Rail reasoned that the line’s trestles were unsafe but was again obliged to respect the original commitment to provide rail service despite the tiny passenger numbers.

Like the steamships, most overseas passenger liners ceased operating in the first few years after World War II as air travel became cheaper, safer and more widely available. But Vancouver was by then firmly established as Western Canada’s major rail terminus, and Vancouver Harbour had become one of the world’s major ports (see photograph here).

By 1960, the Port of Vancouver consisted of seventeen deep-sea ship berths and three berths for coastal vessels that together handled 12 million tons of freight a year. Traffic grew rapidly, and Vancouver was soon moving more tonnage than any other Canadian port, mostly bulk exports such as potash, coal, sulphur, copper concentrate, pulp and paper, lumber, grains and vegetable oil. Ports on the Fraser River also expanded and by the 1970s were handling the entire, rapidly growing flow of Canadian automobile imports from Japan.

The North Fraser Harbour Commissioners were proud of having converted their once hazardous waterway into “a modern well planned harbour serving the many requirements of navigation, industry and the public.”35 However, in a letter to the new provincial environment ministry in 1976, the port’s manager noted that port authorities were feeling increasingly constrained by the demands of other users of the river mouth. Federal fisheries officers frequently questioned the dredging operations that were being carried out regularly to keep the river navigable. Conflicts were growing as well between commercial navigation and a massively expanded fleet of pleasure boats. Recreational users threatened to reduce the space available for log booms and other industrial users. Rumours were circulating that the province might build a new ferry terminal at the mouth of the North Arm, which would greatly complicate harbour management. Overall, the port managers felt other government agencies and the public did not understand the complexity and gravity of the situation on the North Fraser, the conflicts between the port and other users, or the threats to navigation that might ensue from poorly planned port development. The Harbour Commission proclaimed its determination to ensure that the port could be shared by public and industrial users, but its bias was clearly in favour of the latter. These conflicts among an increasingly diverse set of users underlined the fact that the Lower Mainland’s ship traffic was rapidly surpassing the capacities of Burrard Inlet and the Fraser mouth to meet its needs.

Ports, including Vancouver Harbour (seen here in 1966), remained key elements of the Strait’s economy, but conflicts with other stakeholders along the shore increased steadily. Image I-21769 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives.

The solution, proposed by the Vancouver Port Authority and sanctioned by the federal government in 1966, was to build a “bulk terminal” at an isolated site to handle very large volumes of raw material. In this case that meant a massive port expansion south of the Fraser at Roberts Bank, where a new “superport” would be developed to ship coal to Japan. The idea, which reflected changes in international maritime technologies, was to separate port activities from the port city. By 1970, the Port of Vancouver, which now extended far south of the Fraser, was shipping almost 27 million tons of freight annually—more than double the amount of the previous decade—and more than 80 percent of Western Canada’s exports were moving through Lower Mainland ports. A study in the mid-seventies claimed that 10 percent of jobs in the Vancouver area were “port related,” and the port generated more than $600 million in wages and salaries annually, or 12 percent of the metropolitan area’s total payroll.

Port activities started to come under scrutiny for their adverse effects on the envir-onment, from Environment Canada and the province’s own fledgling environmental authority, as well as an emerging community of environmental non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Among the criticisms given substantial coverage in local newspapers through the 1970s were claims by NGOs that industry was encroaching on sensitive marine habitat. In 1974, an umbrella group known as the BC Environmental Council stated in a submission to Victoria: “[I]ndustry should not be allowed to sprawl along our waterfront.” The group was outraged that Freightway to the Pacific, a promotional bilingual English-Japanese film produced by the Fraser River Harbour Commission, encouraged foreign (in particular, Japanese) industry to locate at low-cost industrial sites near the Fraser mouth. Already, it claimed, a Japanese automaker was blacktopping acres of riverside for car storage, in “most wanton disregard for both waterfront and agricultural lands.” The port authorities worked hard to promote their case in the court of public opinion, and the environmentalists concluded that industry, agriculture, fishing, waterfowl and recreation could coexist on the shore, but only with “careful and coordinated planning by all levels of government.”36 Such “integrated planning” had become a panacea for some in those years when it was perceived as a universal solution for increasingly complex, intractable conflicts and challenges related to resource and environmental management.

The most intense criticism was directed at bulk-loading facilities expanding in the deltaic plains and tidal flats south of the Fraser. Productive marine habitat, critics feared, would be disrupted in the areas to be dredged, and permanently lost in those to be filled. These changes would set in motion others, including coastal erosion and deposition, and changes to the marine habitat in general that would be more difficult to predict. Although government and business analysts still used the economists’ language of “cost-benefit analysis,” they began to embrace a new language of “environmental impact assessment.” At least in theory, they began to transcend pure resource and transport economics to include new considerations about environmental costs and benefits. Their discussions pondered, for the first time, things like “significant impacts,” “cumulative effects” and “indirect effects” of proposed port projects on “valued elements of the marine ecosystem” such as tidal flats, eelgrass, plankton, herring, salmon and waterfowl.

At the end of the 1970s, federal environmental authorities recommended that the National Harbours Board scale back its latest plans for expansion of the Roberts Bank bulk-loading port and smaller facilities at nearby Delta Port. Federal Minister of Environment Len Marchand supported recommendations from his Environmental Assessment Panel, which concluded that the Fraser estuary, including Roberts Bank, was “a unique ecological area of great importance [because] Fraser River salmon are dependent upon its preservation, as are many thousands of migratory birds.” The full proposed expansion of the port, in the opinion of the federal environmental authority, would present “an unacceptable threat to the Roberts Bank ecosystem.” Instead, it recommended a more limited expansion in an area judged to be of “minimal ecological value.”37

After engineers used explosives to blast away the notorious Ripple Rock in 1958, Seymour Narrows no longer contained the Strait’s greatest navigational hazard. It was bad for business east of Quadra Island, however, as most ships could now pass through Discovery Passage on their way to and from the North Coast. Image D-05548 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives.

Not surprisingly, this cacophony of conflicting demands from diverse users stimulated fears of impending loss among many people around the Strait. Some feared loss of opportunities to use the seashore for port activities or for industries that needed to be by the sea. Other towns around the sea outside the Lower Mainland were also engaging in their own lively export trade, albeit on a more modest scale, mostly involving lumber, pulp and paper.

To make marine travel safer out of the northern Strait, an underwater mountain called Ripple Rock in Seymour Narrows near Campbell River was blasted into oblivion. It had claimed twenty large ships and more than 100 lives since the 1870s. The Vancouver Sun described Ripple Rock’s destruction on April 5, 1958, as the “biggest non-nuclear peace time detonation ever” when almost 1,400 tons of explosives sent a wave 2.5 metres high onto the shores of Vancouver and Quadra Islands. Nurses and ambulances had been posted in the streets of Campbell River, 15 kilometres away, ready to help possible victims, but they couldn’t even hear the blast.38 Removing the treacherous submerged rock eliminated the risk of colliding with it or getting caught in the dangerous tidal currents that had swirled around it for thousands of years.

Figure 6. A 1977 report prepared for the BC Ministry of Recreation and Conservation proposed a number of industrial sites on the Strait where such development would result in “minimal” ecological loss, according to the report’s authors.

The neutralising of Ripple Rock made Discovery Passage the preferred route for most coastal vessels heading north. Although smaller shoreline communities farther east suffered, opening Seymour Narrows stimulated growth in Campbell River. In 1971, that city exported almost 3 million tons of forest products in 300 ships; for Powell River, these exports were a little over half a million tons in 200 ships. Copper was still being shipped from Britannia on Howe Sound and Hatch Point on the Saanich Peninsula, iron from Texada Island, and limestone from Texada and Bamberton on Saanich Inlet. All of the Strait’s ports shipped almost entirely raw and semi-processed natural resources and were doing a booming trade.

So while Vancouver had first felt the fear of losing industrial opportunities around its port, this fear began to spread around the Strait. A confidential consultants’ report prepared for the province’s Ministry of Recreation and Conservation in 1977 identified eleven sites outside established ports that had good potential for industrial development on eastern Vancouver Island and where, the report suggested, “ecological loss in terms of community, habitat, and resource value will be minimal” (see Figure 6). The authors stressed that these areas should promptly be reserved for industrial use to prevent “further intrusion” of residential or other non-industrial uses. Stretches of shore suitable for industry were becoming increasingly rare around the sea, they said, and were therefore valuable and should “not be squandered.” They discounted the negative impacts such zoning could have on other users of these areas but suggested their report be confidential “to prevent the price of land in these areas going up.” Four of the eleven recommended sites were partially or wholly located on Indian reserves, where inflated land values were unlikely to be a problem.39

Meanwhile, on the water, the sheer number of pleasure boaters and their lack of maritime navigation experience was creating growing problems. Ottawa had amended the Canada Shipping Act in 1962 to improve its governance of small recreational vessels, and ten years later it initiated a small-craft rescue service on the Strait with 5.5-metre launches based at English Bay and Active Pass and in Victoria. People living in isolated corners of the Strait might be familiar with the sea’s dangers, but most summer boaters had little experience with its capricious power, in particular tidal rapids. The Skookumchuck Rapids at the entrance to Sechelt Inlet, for example, drowned dozens of inattentive casual boaters and even a few experienced ones. People might view the Strait’s water as having mostly been “tamed,” but such tragedies were a reminder that it could still be dangerous.

By the 1980s, the Strait was becoming a busy place where residents, businesses and pleasure seekers competed for space while boats, trains, cars and, increasingly, airplanes competed for access. The many surplus military aircraft available after World War II were used to increase access to the most isolated corners of the Strait. Entrepreneurs, resource companies and residents of small communities around the sea found it increasingly convenient to fly where earlier they had travelled by ship. Frederick Marsh met a logger and resort developer in the southern islands in the late 1940s who told him he could “fly to the Mainland in a few minutes anytime we phone for a plane. Every other week we close the mill on Friday and hire a seven passenger plane for the boys to enjoy a change in the city.”40 Mines and forestry camps began to rely on these fast and convenient, though not always safe, small aircraft to move their staff in and out of isolated operations. The Texada iron mine, for example, opened its own airstrip in the early 1960s.

Rapidly growing Campbell River emerged as the hub for small aircraft serving isolated communities and resource extraction operations on the northern Strait and beyond. By the end of the 1960s, Campbell River was Canada’s largest seaplane base. However, like other modes of transport around the sea, aviation also began to face pushback from other stakeholders. Vancouver’s shoreline airport on Sea Island was redeveloped in the 1970s with relatively little outcry but an earlier attempt to construct a runway at Spanish Banks was vigorously rebuffed, especially by the Vancouver Parks Board. And in Comox, environmental activist Melda Buchanan led a successful struggle against plans to infill part of the Comox estuary for airport construction.

The inland sea as barrier and highway

The 1986 World Exposition on Transportation and Communication (Expo 86) drew over 20 million visitors to Vancouver, and its organisers credited the event, justifiably, with “introducing Vancouver to the world.” Vancouver and other settler communities around the sea had been shipping the Strait’s resources out to that world for over a century by then. People had also been moving across and around the inland sea in ways that changed constantly as the Strait’s relationship with human movement was redefined by each new technology: canoe, ship, railway, car, airplane. Settlers were initially as dependent on the marine highway as Indigenous people were, as the sea linked their tiny communities with one another and with the outside world. The railway that brought an unprecedented tide of immigrants to the shores of the Strait also began to reduce dependence on travel by sea. As highways and automobiles replaced steamships around the Strait, the sea became as much of a barrier as it had ever been in historical times. For most people, car ferries became the critical technology for transcending this barrier; for a few, airplanes served the same function. But the era when most people moved around the Strait by sea was over.

While the sea became a barrier for most people living on it in the automobile era, it remained an increasingly important highway for international trade. After all, ocean transport was still a cheap and efficient way to move the Strait’s, and the rest of Western Canada’s, resource wealth to the world (chapters 3 and 4). Governments and industries were inclined to exploit this natural-resource wealth and maximise the economic potential of the Strait’s ports. However, using the inland sea to supply the global marketplace stirred fears of loss among local residents who wanted the Strait to stay their quiet refuge, their healthy recreation space, their backyard wilderness (chapter 6). And they were not alone. Increasingly, local Indigenous communities were beginning to reassert their traditional rights to the Strait, its resources and its shorelines.


1. R.L. Stevenson, “The English Admirals,” Cornhill 38 (July 1878), 36, cited in Cynthia F. Behrman, Victorian Myths of the Sea (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1977), 25–26.

2. E.A. Freeman, “Latest Theories on the Origin of the English,” Contemporary Review 57 (January 1890), 45, cited in Behrman, Victorian Myths, 27.

3. Herbert Hayens, Ye Mariners of England: A Boy’s Book of the Navy (London: Nelson, 1901), 10, cited in Behrman, Victorian Myths, 27.

4. “Log of Wm Lomas from Liverpool to Victoria” in 1862, MS-1236 Lomas Family, William Henry Lomas Fonds, British Columbia Archives.

5. “Extracts from Commissioner Nugent’s Report,” British Colonist, 23 April 1859, 1.

6. “A holiday journey—along the east coast and the adjacent islands,” British Colonist, 13 July 1881, 2.

7. “New Pilot Regulations,” British Colonist, 24 Oct 1869, 3.

8. “The Ball at Government House,” British Colonist, 13 December 1866, 3.

9. Martin Robin, The Rush for Spoils: The Company Province, 1871–1933 (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1972), 57.

10. “The Western Terminus,” British Colonist, 26 September 1877, 2.

11. Stephen Kern, The Culture of Time and Space 1880–1918 (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1983), 17.

12. “The Mission to England,” British Colonist, 4 March 1882, 2.

13. “Victoria as Timber Shipping Center,” British Colonist, 12 June 1910, 25.

14. “Lower Fraser,” British Colonist, 27 July 1873, 3.

15. Most advertised in the Colonist, see examples of their posted schedules: British Colonist, 30 July 1888, 3; “Union Steamship Company” British Colonist, 20 November 1898, 3.

16. “Trade Competition,” British Colonist, 7 Feb 1902, 4.

17. “Victoria the Beautiful,” British Colonist, 16 June 1907, 17.

18. “Through to Yale,” British Colonist, 13 January 1883, 2–3.

19. “A Missing Yacht,” British Colonist, 11 Sept 1884, 2.

20. “Tidal Survey To Benefit Shipping,” British Colonist, 10 June 1909, 2; “Collecting data For Tide Tables,” British Colonist, 29 April 1910, 1.

21. “An Imperial Frontier,” British Colonist, 5 September 1909, 5.

22. Stubbs, “Indian History Recounted by Matriarch,” unpaginated clipping from Comox District Free Press, 30 October 1952, MS-0436, volume 98, Scrapbook “Comox Valley” II, A.F. Buckham Personal and Professional Papers, Alexander Buckham Fonds, British Columbia Archives; “Found,” British Colonist, 10 July 1896, 2.

23. R.S. Mackie, Island Timber: A Social History of the Comox Logging Company, Vancouver Island (Victoria: Sono Nis Press, 2000), 234.

24. William D. Hudson, Railway and Harbour Report, Vancouver, B.C., to Vancouver Town Planning Commission (Vancouver: Harland Bartholomew and Associates, September 1927), 9, file PD 631, City of Vancouver Archives.

25. Hudson, Railway and Harbour Report, 16–18, 25.

26. Letter from Dickie to Harold Brown, Esq., General Manager, Union Steamship Co., Vancouver, BC, 21 June 1939, MS-0006, box 1, Francis Joseph Dickie Papers, British Columbia Archives.

27. Doreen Armitage, Around the Sound: A History of Howe Sound-Whistler (Madeira Park, BC: Harbour Publishing, 1997), 139.

28. T. McCarthy, Auto Mania: Cars, Consumers and the Environment (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007), 41.

29. “Toktie Logs: Sept 16 1939, Sept 4 1941,” MS-1636, Diaries, John Barrow Fonds, British Columbia Archives.

30. Update by the Women’s Institute, 8, MS-0436, volume 106, A.F. Buckham Personal and Professional Papers, Alexander Buckham Fonds, British Columbia Archives.

31. H.L. Cadieux and G. Griffiths, Dogwood Fleet: The Story of the British Columbia Ferry Authority from 1958 (Nanaimo: Cadieux and Griffith, 1967), 10.

32. Briefing notes for the Minister, 22 December 1975, MS-1246, Box 1, Folder 4, Hilary Brown Papers, Islands Trust Fonds, British Columbia Archives.

33. “Leisure Island Laughter” manuscript, MS-1176, Frederick Marsh 1888–1951, Frederick Marsh Fonds, 31, 128, British Columbia Archives.

34. “Roads,” Briefing notes for the Minister, 22 December 1975, MS-1246 Box 1, Folder 4, Hilary Brown Papers, Islands Trust Fonds, British Columbia Archives.

35. Letter dated 30 July 1976 from Kenneth McEwan, Port Manager, North Fraser Harbour Commission to B.E. Marr, Deputy Minister, Dept. of Environment, Victoria. Re: Fraser River Estuary Study, Originals, GR-1002, box 8, BC Environment & Land Use Committee, Administrative Records, British Columbia Archives.

36. Ports and Harbours, GVRD Lower Mainland Environmental Issues File, submission from BC Environmental Council, 1974, Originals, GR-1002, Box 28, Administrative Records, British Columbia Archives.

37. Ports and Harbours, Minister of Environment, Canada, press release, 16 March 1979, Originals, GR-1002, Box 28, Administrative Records, British Columbia Archives.

38. “Ripple Rock Area Probed by Ships—Mighty Blast Believed to Have Ended Menace,” Vancouver Sun, Saturday 5 April 1958: 1–3, File 567-E-6-5, City of Vancouver Archives.

39. Ports and Harbours: Potential Port Industrial Sites SE Vancouver Island file: Ted Burns and Rob Falls, A Survey of Possible Coastal Industrial Sites on Southeast Vancouver Island from an Ecological Viewpoint. Confidential and unpublished report prepared for the Fish and Wildlife Branch, Ministry of Recreation and Conservation, Province of BC, November 1977, Originals, GR-1002 box 28, Administrative Records, British Columbia Archives.

40. “Leisure Island Laughter” manuscript, 439.